Sermon: Febuary 21, 2016 – Many Kinds of Music

Many Kinds of Music

Text: 2 Chronicles 5: 13-14

13 It was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord,

“For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever,”

the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, 14 so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.

Today is getting to know your pastor day because I’m going to let you in on a few secrets. The first secret is that when I was in seminary part of the core curriculum was two classes; Hebrew Bible I and Hebrew Bible II. These classes had a little bit of a reputation of being difficult. They required a lot of reading and it was rumored the tests were outrageous. For those of you who don’t speak seminary, the Hebrew Bible is simply the Old Testament, so the classes could have been called Old Testament I & II, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as intimidating, so they chose to name them Hebrew Bible I & II.

Any way I finally gathered the intestinal fortitude to tackle Hebrew Bible I & II sometime during what I think was my third year in Seminary. The rumors were well founded and the tests were outrageous and I would have to admit the overall experience was not that great. I passed the classes; I don’t really recall what kind of grade I received, but it couldn’t have been too bad because by the time I did graduate my GPA was such that I graduated with honors.

You may have noticed that our text this morning came from the Hebrew Bible, and that doesn’t happen very often around here; I will admit that I spend more time in the New Testament than I do the Old Testament, and those two classes may be one of the reasons why. When I was in seminary, my New Testament classes were fun and exciting; Hebrew Bible I & II were not.

I mention all of this because if you were anticipating some kind of great explanation of the cultural and historical background of this text I’m not going there. What I want you to pay attention to is the idea that several thousand years ago different kinds of music were introduced as ways of praising and worshiping God. There were trumpets and singers and cymbals and other kinds of instruments all mentioned in the text and when it all came together the emotions ran so high and people were so moved that they could barely stand. What I want you to take from this text is simply the idea that music and different kinds of music created with many different kinds of instruments were all used to praise God. That’s all.

I mentioned there are several secrets I was going to share today and my Seminary experience is just one. Another well-guarded secret of mine is that I happen to enjoy the music of the Carpenters. Does anybody remember the Carpenters-ok, so there are a few hands. Most of us don’t want to admit that because things like that tend to date us and we realize that the Capenters were popular at least 40 years ago, maybe 45 and it just couldn’t have been that long ago.

More secrets. The Carpenters sang a lot of love songs. When you are young and impressionable and maybe falling in love for the very first time, the stories in the love songs become your stories. When you are in high school dating your future soul mate, as I was, and songs like “Close To You” or “We’ve Only Just Begun” are popular and you hear them on the radio and on the dance floor…well, it makes an impression. Let me put it another way; the love of my life, which I had the good fortune of discovering early in life, that love has now endured to where this June we will have been married for 42 years. In high school when that love was first beginning to blossom, it was watered and nurtured by the music of the Carpenters. I still listen to the Carpenters and I still enjoy the music because of how it makes me feel.

So here comes another secret. There was one song of the Carpenters that drove me nuts; actually most of the song was OK, but it had a guitar solo in the middle of it that just didn’t belong there. I thought it was awful. You might remember it, the name of the song was “Good-bye to Love”. I’m going to play just a bit of it to help your memory…(play 30 seconds of song)

Ok, some of you remember the song. In the middle of the song comes this guitar solo; I’m not talking about a nice acoustic or steel string guitar, this is an electric screeching and screaming Van Halen kind of guitar solo. Let’s have a listen for as long as you can stand it. (play part of guitar solo)

For decades when I was listening to the Carpenters and the album or the cassette tape or a little later, the CD that I was listening to would get to that part of that song, I would either turn the volume down or fast forward through the solo so I didn’t have to listen to it. I was pretty closed minded about that particular portion of the Carpenters music. Not only was I closed minded, but I was also certain that it was awful and didn’t have any value whatsoever and the song would have been much better without it. Maybe you could even say I was judgmental. You might say I was narrow minded on the subject.

Your pastor, judgmental? Yep. Narrow minded? Yep. More secrets.

Fast forward now another couple of decades. I still listen to the Carpenters and enjoy the music with that one exception. But I thought it was maybe time to try something new. I had a good friend that I could spend time with who is an excellent guitar player and teacher. I thought maybe it would be fun to learn to play the guitar and he offered to teach me. Keep in mind this is not just any guitarist, this particular person holds a master’s degree in classical guitar performance, so he’s pretty good.

Time for more secrets; I’m the kind of person who likes to do well. I set goals for myself and enjoy reaching those goals. I did well in school and my job performance reviews have always been pretty good. Normally when I set out to do something, it gets done. That’s just the way I am. I’ve been called stubborn for that reason, but also called tenacious and motivated and energetic so take your pick. But here’s the point of the story; when I decided to learn to play the guitar, I failed miserably. I had trouble reading the music, I had trouble finding the beat or rhythm, I had trouble with what I thought were fingers that were too fat to fit on the strings, my hands were too small, I couldn’t change chords fast enough to keep up the tempo, it was a catastrophe! I struggled with the guitar for a couple of years. Then I hung onto it for another couple of years thinking I would get back to it. Then I finally sold it and faced the truth that I would never really play the guitar. I can do a lot of things, but I cannot play the guitar. Actually, I don’t understand how anyone can play the guitar-it’s impossible.

At some point in the midst of this personal revelation that I was not a guitar player, the Carpenters song that I mentioned earlier came up on my play list on my Ipod that contained the guitar solo. For the very first time in probably 40 years I did not turn down the volume and I did not fast forward through the guitar solo. I actually listened to it. I tried to imagine the fingers on the fret board moving with such speed and precision, I listened how the artist played with accuracy plucking just the right string at the right time and managing to press the right string or strings without interfering with the others. In short, it was amazing. I don’t turn the volume down any longer and I don’t fast forward through the guitar solo when it plays. I try to appreciate it and I do because it is something that I now know I could never do. I think I am richer for that experience. My perspective has been broadened. I’m not as narrow as I once was.

Let me try to pull all of this together. We began by pointing out that even thousands of years ago, many different kinds of instruments were brought together in praise and worship and it was very effective. Then I shared how personal experience and perspective can allow us to appreciate things that we never thought we could learn to appreciate.

So consider this. From God’s perspective all the faith traditions of the world are simply different instruments and different kinds of music. Many Christians fear and dislike other faith traditions for all the same reasons I didn’t like that guitar solo. Maybe if we bothered to talk to them and learn about their different experiences with the Divine and broadened our perspective and experience just a little, we wouldn’t be so fearful. We wouldn’t be so narrow. We wouldn’t be so judgmental.

There are many kinds of music and God hears them all. And that is food for thought. Go in peace and go with music in your heart. Amen.

Lenten Series Sermon: February 14, 2016

Lenten Series Sermon

Text: Psalm 24:1

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;”

We have some friends who recently moved to the Seattle area and we really miss them in a very selfish way; you see when they lived here, they would often take care of our dog. Our dog is a member of the family and if you are a dog person you will understand that. Our dog also seemed to be a member of their family as well. We were very comfortable leaving our dog with our friends; we knew the friends were happy and the dog was happy and it was all good. One day while our dog was in the care of our friends he was attacked by a larger dog; he was attacked, but not hurt. The humans involved intervened quickly and no real damage was done.

The anxiety this produced for our friends was immense. They didn’t know how to begin to tell us about the incident, even though nothing really happened. They felt that somehow they had violated the trust we had placed in them to care for our dog. Believe me, we didn’t think that for a second, but the anxiety was still there. They couldn’t imagine how awful it would have been to have to call us from the animal hospital and report the incident if it had been much worse. But it wasn’t and we laugh about it now.

But here is the point of that story. We had left the care of our dog in the hands of our friends and they assumed that responsibility and took it very seriously. We trusted them to provide the best care they knew how to give; and they remained trustworthy. My question is whether or not we can say the same thing about ourselves and planet earth. God has left the planet in our care. Have we remained trustworthy? Sadly, I don’t think so.

I don’t know if you have ever been to Colorado or not, but if you are familiar with the state, you might recognize the town of Glenwood Springs. It is in the western part of the state and just outside of town the Colorado River rages through a canyon called Glenwood Canyon; it is a favorite spot for white water rafters and bicyclists and hikers of all kinds. One of the hikes you can take is one of my favorites; it is quite strenuous because you climb up out of the canyon and are able to look down on the river, the winding Interstate 70 that runs through the canyon and the railroad tracks that parallel the highway. The scene is quite breathtaking. One day while hiking that trail with my brother, we reached a spot where we could look out over the canyon and we saw the scene I just described, except that there was a coal train on the tracks that parallel the I-70 that runs through the canyon. What was amazing is that we could hear the squeak and the rumble of this train as the sounds echoed through and among the canyon walls. The train was struggling a bit under the weight of 100 or more coal cars filled to the brim with coal from a local coal mine. The suspension in each car moaned and groaned under the extreme weight, the wheels screamed and wailed as they rolled along and the very earth shook under the immensity of the weight of that train.

My brother and I watched and listened for a few minutes just trying to absorb all that we could see and feel and hear in that moment. After a couple minutes of not speaking, finally my brother commented about the train; he said that sure is a lot of weight to put into the atmosphere.

In an instant, I knew what he meant, but I had never really thought about it in that way.

You see, the coal train was headed for a coal fired electrical power plant where they would burn the coal to create steam which would spin turbines and turn generators that would create electricity for the area. But as they burned the coal, most of the weight that we were witnessing as evidenced by the grinding and groaning train would end up in the atmosphere.

You might remember from 7th grade physical science that matter cannot be created or destroyed, it simply changes form. When we burn something, we don’t destroy the matter, we release the stored energy and the matter changes form. We need to remind ourselves of this fact of science.

It is interesting to me that we rely upon this science as we celebrate this Lenten season. Many of you were present last Wednesday at the Ash Wednesday service and had a smear of ash installed across your forehead. The tradition tells us that ashes help remind us of our own mortality, and the phrase ashes to ashes and dust to dust is actually quite literal. When we celebrate the beginning of Lent with an Ash Wednesday service we are in many ways reinforcing the science that matter cannot be either created or destroyed; it simply changes form. That is as true of coal as it is of our own bodies.

If you have ever lived in a place with a wood stove or a fireplace you might remember having to deal with firewood. It is heavy; that’s one of the reasons that when you buy some firewood you want to make sure the deal includes delivery because you don’t want to have to go pick it up yourself. Once it is delivered and stacked in your back yard it still is a bit of a chore to move the firewood into the house, one arm full at a time, as you use it. Have you ever considered the huge discrepancy of weight of what comes in versus what goes out?

Think about that. You may carry in 8 or 10 or even 15 armfuls of firewood. With each trip, it is about as much weight as you can comfortably carry. Then after burning all that firewood over the course of a few weeks or a month it is time to clean out the fireplace. You scoop the ashes into a coffee can and easily carry it outside and spread it on your garden or your roses. What happened to the rest of that weight? Have you ever thought about that? Most of it went up the chimney and into the atmosphere.

Have you ever run your car out of gas and had to walk back to it carrying a gallon or two of gasoline? I have, and by the time I finally reached my car my arm was aching, that gas can gets heavy after a few blocks. What do you suppose a full tank of gas in your car weighs? How often do you fill up your tank? Where does all that weight go?

Now I know there are some prominent people who deny climate change. They claim they are not scientists. I claim you don’t have to be a scientist. We have all experienced what I’m talking about. Common sense tells you that a coal train going into a power plant weighs more than it does when it is leaving. Common sense tells you we cannot put billions of tons of weight into our atmosphere and not have it make a difference. The only science you need to know you learned in Junior High earth science or physical science and it is the same science that helps us celebrate Ash Wednesday.

Ashes matter. What ashes represent matter.

I don’t think there is any controversy around the idea that we as human beings are to be good stewards of God’s creation. How we claim to do that seems to be a missing ingredient in some people’s world view. Our friends who were dog sitting for us couldn’t imagine how difficult it would have been to call us to tell us that our dog had been seriously injured on their watch. Just the thought of it created high anxiety.

What will we tell God as a human race when the planet God created sustains serious injury and damage because of us?

It is time to rise from the ashes and get serious about our response to climate change and our response to God.

And that, as they say, is food for thought. Amen.

Sermon: Feb 14, 2016 – Peace & Music in the Heart

Peace & Music in the Heart

Text: John 14: 27

 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

You may remember that we have been referencing a poem over the past few weeks written by Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian titled “The Work of Christmas”. For those who may be unfamiliar or who have forgotten, let’s take another look at that poem.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

I have decided that this is the last week of this series and I am combining the last two elements of the work of Christmas; that is to bring peace among the people and to make music in the heart. I believe we can combine them because they seem very closely related to me. Like two sides of the same coin – if you have peace, you will have music in the heart and if you have music in your heart, chances are, you are at peace.

The front half of this service, if you have noticed, has had a theme of peace as it relates to nations and conflicts among people. That is certainly one way to interpret peace; that kind of peace may be expressed as the absence of war or conflict. We speak often of world peace as an ideal we lift up or pray for; that all nations all around the world could simply live in peace.

But if we reference the text I read a few minutes ago, there is another kind of peace that is also worth considering; this peace seems to be a bit more elusive. We know what it means to not be at war, but what did Jesus actually mean when he said he would give us peace? Did he mean that nothing would ever go wrong? I don’t think so. Did he mean we would never get angry or frustrated? I don’t think so. Did he mean that we would never experience hardship or pain, that we would always have plenty of money and food to eat and a roof over our heads? I don’t think so. So the question remains; what did Jesus mean when he said he gives us peace? And on top of that, what does it mean when he says that he gives not as the world gives?

I want to explore some of these questions. They are hard questions, but they are all good questions, and as you may have heard; we think questions are a good thing!

The first thing I want to offer is a fresh way of thinking about personal peace; this is what Jesus is talking about in our text, personal peace, as opposed to world peace or peace of a nation, it is personal peace that Jesus zeros in on. But when we think of personal peace, I believe, that often we think about our external circumstances. In other words, whatever situation we find ourselves in at any given moment helps determine whether or not we will experience personal peace.

If you notice, when we revisit some of the questions I asked just a minute ago, almost all them deal with external circumstances. Did things go right at work? What made us angry or frustrated? Do we have enough money or enough to eat? Are we healthy and free of disease or sickness? You could ask questions like this all day long and most, if not all, deal with external circumstances.

I want to give you something to really think about. Consider this definition of peace for a moment; peace is not your external circumstance, peace is an internal condition.

Of course I realize that at times external condition can help you experience peace. For example, someone might say that they love to walk around the lake because it is so peaceful. That may be true, but the external peacefulness of the lake does nothing to the internal condition until it is absorbed by the brain and the body. You can go to a place that is peaceful and still be in inner turmoil.

For many of us, this is a shift in thinking. We actually believe, if we are honest enough to admit it to ourselves, that our peace is somewhat dependent upon our external circumstances. In other words, we will experience peace as soon as I find the new job. I will experience peace as soon as this relationship is healed, or this disease goes away, or this bill is paid. We link our personal peace to our external circumstance all the time. We have an argument at work, we get frustrated at the DMV, we get stuck in traffic, we get put on hold and are forced to listen to elevator music for 10 minutes and our personal peace evaporates.

Consider this again. Peace is not external circumstance, but rather internal condition. What’s more, with enough practice, I think, it is possible to separate the two. You can experience peace within the most chaotic of external circumstance. But it doesn’t just happen, it takes practice. Jesus, I think, had mastered this kind of peace.

Consider some of the stories from our New Testament. Have you ever hosted Thanksgiving dinner at your house? How peaceful was that for you? And yet, when Jesus was approached by his disciples and they told him the crowd was hungry and should be sent home, Jesus responded with those famous words, “you give them something to eat.” Then Jesus very peacefully and methodically went on to feed the five thousand guests he was entertaining on that day.

When Jesus was arrested in the garden, some of the disciples wanted to respond with violence and anger. But Jesus very peacefully told them to put away your swords, he healed the centurion’s ear, and peacefully was led away to his mock trial.

In the midst of being executed and in what must have been excruciating pain, Jesus very peacefully prayed for his executioners; “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

Once again, peace is not an external circumstance, peace is an internal condition.

Of course this is a topic that has been studied, written about and practiced for thousands of years. Much of this topic supersedes faith traditions and imaginary walls that separate one religion from another. Much of this kind of information predates Jesus and predates Christianity, but it was something that I am convinced that Jesus practiced and was aware of.

There is really too much information about inner peace to cover in a single sermon or even a series of sermons. But you do have to begin at some point, and I believe that beginning point is the realization that there is separation between the internal and the external. Your mind and your emotions may seem to be influenced by external forces, but this is an illusion. You are not your mind, and your thinking about something isn’t always accurate or true. The external circumstance that occupies your mind and generates worry or anxiety or anything that blocks the experience of peace isn’t really your current circumstance. Why I say that is because most of the time our minds are somewhere else other than in the present moment. Our minds, our thinking, tend to always be in the past or the future trying to convince us that when certain things take place, then we can allow ourselves to be at peace.

So step one of experiencing this peace that Jesus spoke of is to quit thinking about the past and the future and simply focus on the present moment. With full acceptance of the present moment comes the peace which the world cannot give and by staying in the present moment you can stay in peace. I think this is what the Psalmist meant when the words were written to be still and know that I am God.

Food for thought. Go in peace and go with God. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon: Feb 7, 2016 – To Rebuild a Nation

Text: Matthew 24:14

14 And this good news[a] of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations;

You may remember that we have been referencing a poem over the past few weeks written by Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian titled “The Work of Christmas”. For those who may be unfamiliar or who have forgotten, let’s take another look at that poem.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

When I began this series I was really excited to talk about the lost and the broken; I wanted to expand our thinking around the hungry and the prisoner. I believe we have accomplished much of what I envisioned we might accomplish with this series. But I must admit to you that I have been somewhat apprehensive as I have watched this next item on the list get closer and closer. I had some anxiety around finding things to say that I was comfortable with as it related to rebuilding the nations. I had anxiety in part because I wasn’t certain what the author meant by rebuilding the nations.

The term rebuilding bothered me a little because it implies that the nations had been destroyed, and now we have to rebuild. I thought of Japan, or parts of Europe or more recently, Iraq or even Viet Nam, but then I realized that those nations come to mind for me because of where I am from; the United States. You see, I thought of nations that needed rebuilding because I thought of nations that had been destroyed at the hands of this country as a result of war and bombs and destruction. But that is only the perspective of someone from this country; what would be God’s perspective?

As I asked that question of myself I began to realize that all nations are in need of rebuilding to one degree or another. Every nation has an element of society that could use a fresh start, every nation has a population of poor and hungry, every nation has a segment of population that may have been impacted by natural disaster. As I tried to broaden my view of rebuilding a nation, I began to see a rebuilding of the nation’s people as the primary objective. Because that is what a nation is; it is the people. A nation is not the land, it is not the cities or the buildings or the bridges or the military might. A nation is the people. If we focus on the idea of rebuilding the people of all the nations, then our mission, at least for me, becomes clearer.

So how do we rebuild people? That is the question, really isn’t it? How do we rebuild people? I also think that our text this morning is really saying that as well; that we are to share the Good News, that is share the Gospel, with all the nations, all the peoples of the earth. I don’t think we share the Good News simply by telling the story of Jesus or through what many of us may consider conventional evangelism. No, I believe we share the Good News through action and through tangible evidence that somebody cares. That is how we rebuild people, we give them hope, we give them food, we give them shelter. In short, we find ways to make their lives better.

I believe we have a responsibility as a church to help rebuild people everywhere. Certainly there is plenty to do right here in the valley. But there are other nations; there are other people, perhaps half-way around the world that need rebuilding as well. How do we reach them? Is it not a little unreasonable to think that we can reach into all the world and rebuild the people of every nation? The text didn’t say a couple of nations or a few nations of our choosing, but rather it said all the nations. How do we do that? It seems impossible.

I would agree that it seems impossible for this church to reach all the nations. We can’t even reach everyone in the valley; how are we supposed to reach all the nations? It can’t be done and the task is just too big. Perhaps it would be better if we ignore that part of the “Work of Christmas” list and ignore that particular text in the New Testament and others like it.

It would be easy to come to these kinds of conclusions and simply give up. But it can be done and it is being done when we work together. That is, in part, the beauty of the United Methodist system; we don’t have to do everything ourselves, by working together we can accomplish a great deal more than any one of us could accomplish on our own. We have systems in place that allow us to impact the entire world and participate in rebuilding the nations. One such system is UMCOR-the United Methodist Committee on relief.

I believe most of you are somewhat familiar with UMCOR and what it does in our world. Our connectional system of United Methodist Churches makes ministries like UMCOR possible; we work together to solve world problems and rebuild the nations.

One of the ways we participate in our connectional system is through the paying of our apportionments. One of the ways I like to think about the word apportionment is to think of it as “a portion meant for others”. There are countless ways that our apportionments impact the world and the nations and the people in need of rebuilding. When we pay our apportionments, we are working with others to rebuild the people in other nations that cannot rebuild themselves. We are reaching across the oceans and around the globe in ways that we simply could not do by ourselves. When we support our connectional ties, we support the concept of working together and accomplishing far more as a group of churches than any single church could do on their own.

We probably don’t talk about this enough. And that is my fault since I am the one who decides for the most part what we talk about on Sunday morning. But we need to talk about it now. Apportionments are important and through our support and paying of the apportionments, we fulfill our call to rebuild the nations and rebuild the people of the nations. It is the most effective vehicle available to us and we should use it.

But here’s the deal. In 2015 we only paid about half of our apportionments. That means we left some things undone. It means someone didn’t get the help they need. It means we didn’t do everything we are called to do.

There are a lot of reasons we left half the apportionments unpaid. Rest assured we did not withhold the money to pay our apportionments; we simply didn’t have the money. You see apportionments are different from most of the bills we receive as a church. With most bills, if you fail to pay or cannot pay there are dire consequences. They come and turn off the electricity or the water, if you can’t pay the help, they seek employment elsewhere, it is against the law to not have insurance or pay our taxes. There are lots of bills; sometimes the apportionments get shuffled to the bottom of the pile.

We are a strong church and we are doing a lot of things. There are a lot of changes happening and we are investing a lot of money in our future right now. But the day-to-day expenses continue. We may give the impression of a church with lots of resources and buckets of cash hidden away in every closet, but that is not the case. In reality, we survive week to week. Often we wait on a bill, wait on a paycheck or simply don’t pay our apportionments in order to balance the checkbook. Some churches have trust funds or investments that can pull them through the lean times. We do not. Most of the resources of that type have been used long ago.

Just for example, it takes about $14,000 a month just to keep the lights on, the telephone working, the building clean and insured, and the staff paid-before we take on any special projects or fix anything that needs to be repaired. On a weekly basis that means we need to collect a little over $3,000 each and every week. Generally, when we count the offering, it is less than that. Much less.

I know some of you have been supporting this church for decades. Your generosity is inspiring. But I also know that some of you have not changed the amount you give each week or each month for a number of years. Our expenses are not what they were 10 years ago. Others perhaps have not thought about giving more to the church-and that may be because we haven’t ever really asked. But we are asking now. If we are going to complete the work of Christmas, if we are going to rebuild the people of the nations, if we are going to accomplish what we need to accomplish to secure our future; we need to survive in the short term. We have been making some long term plans that I’m certain will ease this burden over time. But it will take time. Until that day arrives when we have even more members, more programs, greater outreach and greater ministry-it is up to us.

I think most of you would agree we have made considerable progress toward our long term sustainability over the last year or so. But the journey ahead is long and the results take time. Give some thought about when you last evaluated what you give to this church and what it might mean for someone if we could do a little bit more. Pray about it, think about it and then act on that decision. I want to keep moving forward, I want to keep doing the work of Christmas, I want to pay 100% of our apportionments in 2016 and I want everyone to experience the joy of supporting an effective and dynamic ministry that is this church.

And that, as they say, is food for thought. Go in peace. Amen.

 

Sermon: January 31, 2016 -To Release the Prisoner

To Release the Prisoner

Text: Romans 4: 14-15

14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

Over the past few weeks we have been involved in a series of sermons where we are looking at the different aspects of what Howard Thurman called the work of Christmas. Mr. Thurman, an African-American theologian, first wrote the words to his poem, “The Mood of Christmas” in 1946, as part of a letter. We have been focusing the last few weeks on what Howard Thurman identifies as specifics which could be considered the work of Christmas, and I find this to be so interesting because I think it clearly identifies the mission of the church and offers us a real opportunity to define our future.

Let’s take one more look at the poem and this list of opportunities that Thurman calls us to:

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”

We have hopefully expanded our thoughts around these first few items on this list. We looked at what it means to be lost and be neighbor to the lost; we have also explored the idea of being broken and when we move toward healing of the broken how important realignment is. Last week we talked a little bit about feeding the hungry, both in a physical sense and particularly the spiritually hungry. We focused on how important it is that what we offer as spiritual food is accessible and relevant to a 21st century demographic.

Today, I want us to continue down this list and expand our understanding of what it might mean to release the prisoner. At first glance I think most of us would understand that we are not talking about a literal release of people who have been incarcerated for committing a crime of some sort. Actually, our criminal justice system certainly could use some attention, and I think we do incarcerate far too many individuals, but that is an entirely different topic for another time. I believe this idea of releasing the prisoner involves something very different than what you may have thought of in the past.

As we begin to unpack this idea of releasing the prisoner, I want to revisit the scripture that I read a few minutes ago, because it provides a couple of clues about the direction I want to explore with this topic. As we look at the text again, I want to point out just a couple of things that might have been overlooked the first time we read through this.

In this text the apostle Paul is pointing out that if it were possible to gain God’s favor, what he calls the inheritance, through works or behavior, that is by following the law, then faith and the promise of faith simply have no purpose. In Paul’s words, faith is null and the promise void. He goes on to clarify this position in the second verse; For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. This is an amazing concept and I think it relates directly to what we might consider to be a process of releasing the prisoner. Because how often do laws, rules, regulations and tradition hold us prisoner to do things in a particular way or to believe a certain way?

I want to approach this from a different direction as we let the significance of this scripture begin to sink in. I know I have mentioned growing up in Iowa on a number of occasions, and have spoken of the snowstorms that would sometimes come to call on our part of the country. There just isn’t anything quite as much fun as a snow day. I know many adults, me included, who still feel this way, but a snow day as a kid is just almost too exciting to put into words. This is especially true when they call off school the night before!

As I think about why a snow day is so special, one of the things that comes to mind is that all the normal “rules” or “laws” kind of go out the window and we experience a freedom from those rules that only happens on rare occasions. When I was growing up we had certain rules around the house about bed times and homework and such things that applied particularly on school nights. When school is called off for the next day, suddenly all those laws are null and void. I don’t have to be in bed at a particular time, because I don’t have to get to school. I don’t have to worry about my homework, because I don’t have to go to school. The freedom experienced at the hands of a simple snow day is magnificent! In reality, the freedom we experience is a result of being liberated from the prison of rules and laws. When school officials call off school; they are from a certain perspective releasing the prisoners!

Now I am not advocating that we abolish all laws and all rules and regulations. They serve a function and without any laws I’m afraid our world would be rather chaotic. But there is a time when the invasion of rules and regulations begins to hold us prisoner and at times it becomes necessary for us to identify this condition, and then offer liberation from that prison. So the true question becomes what laws are necessary and what laws are oppressive? This can be a tricky question to answer and it has been a constant companion of progressive thinkers and civil rights leaders for centuries. At what point did the laws from England become so oppressive that the colonies had to revolt in the revolutionary war? When did we realize the laws around slavery or segregation were oppressive and began to seek ways to change these laws? For decades in the church we had laws about the role and status of women in the church that we finally have overcome that example of oppression – at least in this denomination. This is really a very interesting question if we begin to think about it and try to identify what becomes oppressive and what is useful.

I happen to believe that most of the ministry of Jesus was centered on this idea of freedom from oppressive law steeped in ancient Judaism. The system had evolved to the point where much of the law was oppressive and held people back; it held them in prison. Jesus sought to release those who were oppressed and in prison from the law. So to get back to the apostle Paul, and our text this morning, if we abolish the law, then there can’t be a violation of the law. When the United Methodist Church abandoned the law that women could not be clergy, then women had the freedom to pursue that calling and women that are now clergy are not in violation of the law, because the law does not exist.

This dichotomy still exists today. We have laws, both in society and in the church, that are oppressive and we need to find ways to offer freedom to those who are held prisoner by those laws. This may require us to examine our traditions, our theology, our political positions, and how we structure a worship service-but make no mistake, if we are to truly answer the call to release the prisoner and if we are to truly follow the example of Jesus, we need to examine this closely. But when we do, the question still remains; how do we know when a law has become oppressive?

Let me offer just one possible perspective that can help us determine when a law or a tradition has become oppressive; it is really very simple, and yet very elusive. If we can identify the source of the law and determine if it comes from a position of love or fear, that can be very helpful in recognizing the potential for oppression. When a law originates from a place of love, it is understood that the law provides protection or opportunity or equality and it has a spirit of love and acceptance. A simple example would be a red light at an intersection. You must stop at a red light. This law comes from a place of love because we are trying to protect people from car accidents at busy intersections. I don’t think anyone could mount an argument that stopping at a red light interferes with their personal right to rush through an intersection. Talking on a cell phone while driving becomes a little more ambiguous, but I still think it comes from a place of love and an effort to reduce car accidents.

But what if they passed a law that said red cars are the most visible, and in an effort to reduce car accidents all cars must be red? It gets a little trickier at that point, doesn’t it? Would a law like that come from a place of love or does it come from a place of greed by some lobbyist who manufactures red paint? These are the hard questions we are faced with when we are called upon to release the prisoner – it isn’t always black and white and it isn’t always crystal clear as to what direction we need to go or what position we need to take.

The important thing, I believe, is that we create an environment where we can openly talk and question and discuss important issues and work through some of these questions. It is the only way we can be actively involved in the ministry of releasing the prisoners. We must be open to new ideas, new perspectives and be willing to acknowledge that laws and our perspectives on those laws evolve over time. And when we come face to face with a law that seems oppressive, we must be willing to change it; only then can the prisoner that was held hostage by that law be free.

The same principal applies to tradition. Just because it has always been done this way, isn’t necessarily a reason to continue to do it that way. We have an interesting example of this that comes to us from the Old Testament, in the book of Ruth. You are probably familiar with the story. When traditions concerning marriage, widows and inheritance compel Naomi to leave her daughter-in-law Ruth, the tradition gets challenged by Ruth from a position of love. She doesn’t want Naomi to leave, but rather than being left alone, Ruth agrees to go with Naomi back to her homeland. Ruth tells Naomi, “don’t force me to stay behind” and then she goes on and tells Naomi, “your people shall be my people and your God my God.”

In this story, I believe we have an example of where tradition became oppressive and the result was that tradition was then challenged by Ruth. And it was challenged from a place of love. We can challenge laws and tradition and work to release the prisoner if we keep love in the forefront of our minds and our motives.

To close our thoughts on this topic this morning, the chancel choir will bring to you the “Song of Ruth”.

Amen.